A History of No Future
Feminism, Eugenics, and Reproductive Imaginaries
Who would, after all, come out for abortion or stand against reproduction, against futurity, and so against life?
—Lee Edelman, No Future (2004)
Let the world end. Let it end.
—Susan Ertz, Woman Alive (1936)
Utopian Interventions to the Reproduction of Empire
Queering Futurity, Reproducing History
What has it meant to reroute the generational lines between past and future created when heterosexual procreation structures social and biological reproduction? One definition of queerness is the embodiment of such a break. In what Sara Ahmed calls a “failure to inherit the family line,” straight teleologies can be dislodged by those whose desires and practices are not contained by and do not continue heteronormativity.1
Yet distinctions between queer and straight time are not always uncomplicated or obvious. The white feminist utopian archive I analyze in this chapter demonstrates how breaks and bends in normative time have been articulated through the intersection of class, colonial, and racial imaginaries with questions of gender and desire.
The temporalities of the fictions I discuss below are conceptualized as lines
—as chronological trajectories from past to future focused through a present in which writing and thinking take place. While futurity, especially when approached through a rubric of queerness, can equally be thought as a gesture, an eruption, or a rhythm reaching backward and/or forward from the present, we cannot avoid experiencing the irrevocable forward flow of time. Narrative temporalities centering on that flow dominate Anglo-American cultural common sense. Turning to the future’s histories allows me to ask whether the linear temporalities of “normal” life narratives (from birth to childhood through adolescence, reproductive adulthood, and old age to death), and the notions of development and progress that Euro-American philosophies have often associated with them, are necessarily straight.2
Since his 2004 monograph No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive
, Lee Edelman has become the avatar for a position that queer desiring bodies, constituted by their implicit challenge to the dominant sexual order’s devotion to procreation, signify opposition to the
powerful normative force of reproductive futurism
. Edelman argues that political struggle for any cause, whether radical, liberal, or conservative, is defined by the idea of creating a better future and as such is necessarily constituted by normative appeals to the “extrapolitical” value of “fighting for the future” by “fighting for the children.” In other words, it is through structural form
that futurity and all its associations belong to heteronormativity. Differences between children, families, representations, images, and projections are far less relevant than the hymn to the “Futurch,” the sacrifice of present pleasures for the sake of posterity, which they all have in common.3
The queer, in this model, becomes that which figures the end of the future.
It is difficult to counter Edelman’s anti-futurist argument on the figurative level at which it unfolds. Unsullied by political materiality’s complicities and ambiguities, the anti-future position is also seemingly unmarked by the compromising messiness of racialized, gendered embodiment. Nor do I precisely want to counter it. The figure of the innocent child certainly does set limits on what is speakable in political discourse—limits that are as dangerous to nonfigurative children as to adults. However, taking the content of Edelman’s formalism as a starting point can lead us in new directions.
Fantasies of futurity, both figurative and literal, are never not connected to material and political projects. Edelman’s “queer” is a figure of destructive negativity whose racial and gendered embodiments and global locations are not specified. Nevertheless, this figure emerges from a British, French, and American archive of white gay masculinity and arises in a context where the Christian Right dominates US politics.4
Affiliating his queer critique with feminism via the political issue of abortion in the United States, Edelman critiques the pro-life/pro-choice binary when he describes himself feeling interpellated by a billboard remonstrating against abortion rights, called out as a negation of its “biblical mandate” to “ ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ ”5
… stand against
futurity, and so against life
?” he asks, before insisting that it is the role of queers to do so.6
And yet this pro-life logic is not as universal as it seems once we look away from the billboard toward more complicated contexts.
The connection between heterosexual sex and procreation is the backbone of oppositions between queerness and futurity; queerness is what
makes visible the drive for pure, self-shattering pleasure that is a potential in all sexual acts. Neither Edelman nor many of his critics attend closely to the gendered politics of procreation that ground his argument, relegating physically reproducing bodies to the realm of normativity.7
But to take mainstream American culture’s pro-natalism at its universalizing face value is to elide much. The figurative child may be the sign of futurity on which most if not all politics rely, but analyzing the intersecting gendered, racial, and national investments that create narratives of reproductive futurism shows that this child does not come without a figurative family that is also politically, and unevenly, deployed. This chapter and the next are about the mothers in that family.
To jump from futurity to children to mothers is certainly on some level to participate in a heterosexual logic of (re)generation in which the future is indeed kid stuff and kids’ only meaningful connections are to the presumed-to-be female, presumed-to-be heterosexual bodies from which they emerged. Yet to ignore the bodies from which queer and other subjects literally emerge is to risk participating in racialized and classed dynamics that elide the question of who disproportionately carries out reproductive labor.8
The history of population control has involved plenty of “coming out … against reproduction,” in the form of forced sterilizations of disabled, poor, and racialized women, as well as the demonization of the inappropriately reproductive. Historically, the politics of birth control as feminist autonomy have been closely connected with ideas about shaping the reproductive future of the human race.9
Predictions and projections of the future of the human race have never been innocent of racialized and nationalistic understandings that seek to determine which kinds of humanity ought to be most desirable. And we should be able to look at those projections in a way that takes this into account, while remaining attentive to a queer critique of reproductive futurism.
While Edelman’s work shapes recent queer thinking about futurity, Walter Benjamin’s 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History” is a foundational reading for thinkers focused on the past and committed to theorizing temporality in a way that does justice to those absent from or oppressed by dominant tellings of history. Benjamin demands that the dominant narrative of progress be broken, calling for a counter-evolutionary temporality that would “brush history against the grain”
and grant priority to those who did not survive—a call that has been heeded by generations of historians, particularly those who seek to recover the queer past.10
Benjamin describes the brutality of a model of history structured as a progress narrative in which the fittest survive to tell stories of past struggle in ways that justify their victory. His critique of this “historicist” model demands a nonlinear understanding of temporality that does not obfuscate the perpetuation of historical violence’s pain. “A present … in which time stands still and has come to a stop” is necessary to critique the assumption of a homogenous progress through generations, in which history’s subjects climb over the bodies of the oppressed to reach a future useful only for a victorious few.11
This stoppage in time demands a relationship with the past wherein history’s victors would no longer be heroes. It means that linearity and development are insufficient structures for thinking about time politically.
Female bodies, as desiring and as reproductive, hold a complicated position in the metaphoric language Benjamin uses to articulate the project of historical materialism. He wants to “stop” time in a moment whose potentiality has been translated into English as “pregnant with tensions,” refusing to capitulate to normative historicist temporality by birthing generational progress.12
Benjamin, in the translation whose phrasing has resonated with generations of scholars, writes:
The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called “Once upon a time” in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history.13
The seductive, obfuscating utopia of progress is a “bordello” for Benjamin, conjuring the image of a debauched female body laid out for the use of men who will be corrupted by her touch.14
In Benjamin, “the whore called ‘Once upon a time’ ” sucks masculine energy from the historical materialist who would heroically counter historicism’s erasures. Routed through the economic, female sexuality figures linear, conservative, straight time; through that figuration, it does the work of the oppressor. Benjamin’s insistence on thinking history through “oppressed ancestors” rather than “liberated grandchildren” challenges the dominance of reproductive futurism with its insistence that we give the past its due and not give up on changing the present for a vague dream that the future might be better.15
But if the historical materialist “blasts” a stop in a “pregnant” moment before it can birth a new generation of progressive history, we must wonder what it means that women’s work of reproduction (giving birth, keeping things rolling) is so easily dismissed as counter-revolutionary.
Benjamin’s “blast” out of the continuum of historical time has not been restricted to those who shared his radical politics. As a method, it connects to many writers and artists whose critical engagement with modernity was primarily aesthetic, including Wyndham Lewis’s Blast
magazine, Ezra Pound’s proclamation to “make it new,” and the Italian futurists.16
In Benjamin, the blast’s connection with oppositional politics is intended to cast light on overshadowed and overpowered participants in the past, rather than to celebrate the aesthetics of the break itself. Benjamin critiques the presumption that history has ever been or can ever be a stable continuum, but he does not refuse or turn away from history itself. And yet that vital critique performs an overshadowing of its own, pushing aside the labor that has underwritten history’s continua and the erased subjects whose contributions may not have been either politically or aesthetically radical enough to reflect in the flashes from the blast furnace.
I seek to account for the ways the future looks from the perspective of the bodies that are pregnant (the English translation of Benjamin’s formulation suggests they may be so perpetually): the employees in historicism’s bordello who may not blast
through history or seek to break its continuum, but who nevertheless imagine how the future could be bent
in different directions. We might be reminded of Julia Kristeva’s influential 1981 essay “Women’s Time,” in which woman as figure stands as a constitutive outside to time as linear history and is associated with “repetition and eternity” through reproductive cycles, on the one hand, and the iconography of the sacred, on the other.17
The female figures in the fictions I examine in the rest of this chapter do not demand such radical departures from patriarchal or colonial time, but there is still much to learn from their struggle to imagine alternate possibilities within the temporal structures that define them.
Deviant Futures at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
As the twentieth century dawned in Britain and the United States, the imagined future was a critically important rhetorical site for thinking
about the present. The onset of modernity with its rapid, uneven social and technological upheavals meant that the present seemed like something very different from a seamless continuation of the past. New modes of production and communication, from photography and radio to machinery for manufacture, were altering the ways many people lived and worked; new scientific discoveries and the idea of evolution were popular topics of conversation; and radical political ideas were in ferment on both sides of the Atlantic. Speculation about the future as a point of completion, within which the complications of the present could be resolved, gave rise to visions of future civilizations and gleaming technological futures that would later become the stuff of science fiction cliché.18
Not all representations of technological futurity were hopeful ones. E. M. Forster used a visio...